I grew up in a conservative town in a conservative family attending a conservative church. By “conservative” I don’t mean politically conservative as much as culturally conservative: we respected our traditions, respected authority, and respected our country. I assumed America’s greatness and unquestionably supported our military and police.
However, that respect was challenged when I became involved in Operation Rescue while in college. This was the movement to stop abortion through civil disobedience. I was arrested a half dozen times for (non-violently) blocking abortion clinic doors in an attempt to save babies from certain death. While I was involved in this movement my view of both America and American authorities began to change. I witnessed police and judges treat pro-lifers with contempt and often a harsher attitude than they would treat hardened criminals. I had friends sentenced to over a year in jail, simply for pro-life-related activities. Most importantly, I began to have a less rose-colored view of America; after all, this country had legalized the killing of unborn children, and went to great lengths to keep that “right” intact. My support for America and her authorities was no longer unquestioned.
I came to see abortion as the third of America’s Great Sins, the others being our treatment of Native Americans and of course slavery. Conservatives like to whitewash those previous two evils, but we must recognize them for what they are. They are evils perpetrated by the legitimate American government, with the consent of the American people. After all, we live in a republic, so if the American people wanted to end legalized abortion (or slavery or our treatment of Native Americans), we could do so by electing leaders who would make it happen. Yet we never stopped our exile of the Native Americans, it took a civil war to end slavery, and we still have legalized abortion on demand. I find it hard to be super-patriotic about America when faced with those facts.
Requirements of Patriotism
This leads to some important questions: Am I required to be patriotic? What are the limits of patriotism?
In order to answer those questions, first we need to define patriotism. Patriotism is a category of the virtue of justice, along with religion and piety. Justice is giving someone what he is due. Piety is giving our parents their due: they made our life possible, and so we owe them respect. Religion is giving God his due: he made everything possible, and so we owe to him his due, which is our worship and service. Patriotism is also a part of justice: each person is born in a country, and owes that country its due for providing a specific place to be born and to be raised. Thus patriotism is a virtue that every person should have. As an American, I owe my country love and devotion.
However, virtues can be abused and become vices. For example, if a parent tells you to do something immoral, it is not the virtue of piety to obey; it is the abuse of piety. If a priest teaches heresy and gives a bad example, it is not the virtue of religion to remain silent and allow it to continue without opposition. Likewise, it is not patriotism to offer blind devotion to one’s country, supporting it no matter what evils it might commit.
The abuse of patriotism is typically known as nationalism. This is when a person supports the actions of a country’s authorities no matter what, simply because those authorities represent his country. Nationalism is a sin, not a virtue, for no country is perfect, and one cannot support evil, even if done in the name of one’s country.
I believe that conservative patriotism in our country is in danger of morphing into nationalism. One trait of nationalism is an equivalence between patriotism and an exalted veneration of the military. The military performs an important role for America, but it is not the primary representation of America. The military is composed of sinful human beings who can (and do) commit sins in the name of America, yet any criticism of the military is seen as a fundamentally unpatriotic action. Nationalism looks the other way; patriotism challenges those actions and see them as a blot on the nation.
After 9/11, however, many conservatives have turned worship of the military (and police and rescue personnel) into the defining characteristic of patriotism. If you don’t give unquestioned support for these institutions, then you must hate America. We have turned the Fourth of July into a “Praise the Military” day, instead of recognizing the fundamental subversiveness of it. Our founding fathers were resisting an oppressive State. They were seeking to oust the army of that State from their shores. How does glorifying the military arm of our own State honor them? Like the founding fathers, we should instead direct our praise to regular, everyday Americans.
I see these institutions like every other government institution: made up of flawed people who might often do good, but can easily fall into abusive actions if not kept in check. In fact, it is the worship of the military which is most likely to make abuse possible, for it leaves no one to challenge it if it crosses the line. Just because I have a skeptical view of the military and police (as well as a skeptical view of all government institutions) doesn’t mean I’m unpatriotic. In fact, I would argue the opposite.
I love America. I do believe it is the greatest nation on earth. I also believe it is very flawed—just less flawed than every other country. I pray for my country, and hope that God will lead us to be truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.